It is a fair assumption that the majority of war films concern the men fighting the war and not the women at home who must send their husbands, sons, and brothers off to die. Perhaps this is because violence, explosions, and battles sell the most movie tickets, or perhaps it has something to do with the fact that witnessing the killing draws more of an emotional impact than seeing someone reading about it in a letter. Testament of Youth, based on the memoirs of Vera Brittain, accomplishes in making a truly powerful film about war in which we hardly even see a gun being fired, yet it still draws out the devastation that war causes everyone involved, specifically those waiting for the soldiers to return.
Told from the point of view of the ferociously independent Vera (played breathtakingly by Alicia Vikander,) Testament of Youth follows her time throughout the first World War as she finds love in Roland (Game of Throne’s Kit Harrington,) and witnesses the destruction of the war through letters and her time as a nurse in England and France. There are no epic battle scenes, no reenactments of the horrendous battles, and we do not see anybody get shot. Somehow, when letters get come, we witness the sheer pain that befalls everyone who knows someone who died and we feel the emotions that are delivered so palpably by VIkander, Dominic West (who plays her father) and Emily Watson (her mother.)
Vikander, who has already made some buzz for her work in Ex Machina earlier this year, is a rising star capable of delivering an immensely stirring performance. Her fierce will to become educated despite her parent’s urges for her to marry drives her to Oxford. Watching her fall in love with Harrington is raw and impassioned. He tells her to be exactly what she wants to be. His love for her shows through his means of making her feel less of an object and more of a woman he finds a kindred spirit in. They write beautiful poems to each other, and it is their bond that makes us fear any letters from the war. Harrington proves himself as an exceptional leading man with a charming and romantic performance.
While the film touches on some aspects of PTSD, it more focuses on the people who are not fighting. When the soldiers return on leave, we learn of some of the events that take place, but what Vera experiences is only what she sees from her nursing station. The countless men who come through, whether they live or die, weigh down on her as they all remind her of Roland, her brother (Taron Egerton,) and their friends who are all sacrificing their lives for a senseless war. War makes people mature at unnaturally alarming rates. It sheds any sign of youth in those who fight and experience the atrocities first hand. The film captures this by showing us the drastic changes the boys have endured when they come home, and it is definitely not easy to watch.
War makes ghosts, as one character explains near the end of the film, but it is on those at home to have to get used to living with them. Testament of Youth is an unrestrained look at the costs of war to those at home who must endure the anxiety and fear of hearing about the loss of someone they love. It is a somber reminder that war can be avoided, and so can the pain, as long as we try hard enough and never forget those we have already lost.